The 13th Floor

15 Years Later: PART TWO Of Our Chat With THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES Director Mark Pellington!

Read PART ONE of our interview with Mark Pellington right here.

Adam Barnick: Do you think John Klein was brought to Point Pleasant in order to LEARN to let go?  To accept not getting answers?

Mark Pellington: What transported him there that night, to go through this experience, to the phone call with Laura Linney near the end, when he’s really breaking down?  He’s constantly trying to connect it to grief, right? He’s trying to think that there’s an answer about Mary’s death.  She saw something, and that’s what brought him there; the connection between the appearances of the Mothman that appears to these people around the moment of death; and her death. So I think when Laura Linney is like “John, people are going to die, earthquakes are gonna happen. All these things are gonna happen, and it doesn’t mean that there is anything; the nature of things is that ‘people die’”.  That’s an absolute, irrefutable truth.

I truly believe that John does understand that. Yet, right as he’s understanding that, he returns and the bridge collapses and he’s left holding her after the trauma; all this death has happened, and it’s the exact amount of people she had predicted.  He looks up and it’s that larger thing of like “There’s no way that these things happen just randomly; there IS a connection between all of these events, and therefore, I think that there’s something larger than US.”

That’s what I always felt.  We name it different things, we name it gods, we name it monsters, demons, but it’s because we can’t control these things, so we seek that there’s others that can control the world we live in.  And that’s just thinking about it in retrospect; I don’t know what I would have thought 15 years ago; but that’s what I think about it now.

AB: Every time I go back and watch it I now feel it’s about accepting “What is.” Not necessarily understanding that, but accepting it.

MP: Sure! Yeah! Well that’s the rational mind speaking, that’s what she says!  Yet, we live with trauma, you don’t necessarily always just accept it. If you’re burned on your neck and you have a scar, you’re still holding it in some way, shape or form.  The thing is it’s all about that ambiguity, right? It’s not black or white. The whole movie’s “grey”.  And so the people who were wanting things to be black and white didn’t like the movie and the people who like things grey, they liked it.  To simplify.

AB: An important thing I took away from it is it’s an unfortunate truth that sometimes you don’t get an answer. You don’t get ‘why?’ answered. Especially if you’re coming from the point of view of grief. You feel that might be the only way you can keep going is getting an answer.  “I’ve got to find something that makes this life event make sense.”

MP: Absolutely!  Oh my god absolutely. It’s a great mystery.

AB: Watching the story strictly from the POV of grief and paranoia, it was really fascinating. Gere’s making connections where there probably aren’t any. But when you’ve lost your foundation, it’s interesting to see what the mind will do to try to make one.

MP: Absolutely. He’s unmoored, and the more you see that Will Patton’s character is completely insane, yet you see Gere tracking him when Will’s pointing it out and explaining it to him, you see Gere completely connect.  He starts off, disbelieving. “I wasn’t here at 3:30 am, three nights in a row. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Yet later in the film, he can completely wrap his head around the idea.  He’s the one who’s insane by then, right? John’s the one spewing all this paranoid stuff to the governor.  He’s completely off the hook.

AB: I thought it was an interesting arc where the further down the rabbit hole Gordon goes, the more balanced and serene he gets.

MP: Yeah, it’s interesting. Will Patton is such a great, intense actor. I don’t think that was ever on the page. I don’t think Will ever did anything the same way twice. Let’s say this: he was more certain, because he was proven right. He’s proved right, many times.

At the beginning in the bathroom, Gere and Gordon’s wife say things and Gordon gets a little tripped up.  Right? He’s like “No, this fucking happened!” He’s so intense about it and certain, yet later when he’s in the backyard, he has… it’s the serenity of near-death, perhaps.  Almost like he’s mesmerized or drawn to Indrid Cold, sees him outside the truck window, you definitely get that hypnotized, drawn-into-it energy from him.

AB: How was working with Laura?

MP: She was great!  This was my third movie, she had a lot more experience. I remember there’s the scene where they drive into town, she’s brought Klein back from Gordon’s and she mentions some weird shit’s been happening.  And the car stops and that’s where she explains people are seeing things at night and people are kind of unnerved.  And I wanted her to be a little more spooked herself, and I asked her if she could play it “a little more unnerved.” And she was like “What do you mean, just play it more unnerved?”  I was like “um….”  “You just want a result. I don’t know how to play that.”

This is a theater-trained actress, talking to the un-theater trained director. So we had this long thing. Very respectful though.

AB: She wanted to be guided to that result, vs. just being told the end, right?

MP: Yes! I said, look; I didn’t study theater, I’ll be honest with you. You’re the sheriff in town, you see this guy, and he seems to be one of the first sane people you’ve met in a while. And if he sees a little fear, you’re allowing the audience to see a little fear that counterpoints your role as a police officer. You were very cool with Gordon, you’re driving John in and saying what kind of things have been happening. It’s a little gateway to mystery. If you call that being a result, then it’s a result. That’s all I know about your role in this scene at this point in the film. And those are the words I will use to communicate that, to you.  We can do a bunch in a row and just see what happens, which some actors love and some actors don’t love. I’d met her before we cast, explained that Connie is grounded and the voice of reason, and she’s a lighthouse in the storms of madness.

So she knew it, you know? I just needed her a little more spooked. But she was like “If I’m spooked then how is John gonna be spooked?”  I was like “exactly. It’s a look, it’s editing, it’s the light, there’s all just a feeling.” Once she learned I was kind of more interested in feelings and tone, and I would just let her do whatever she wanted and if something didn’t feel right, I would explain that “that didn’t feel right, because of X Y and Z.”  Then we got along fine. You know?

AB: When you met with Richard Gere about the film, he’s certainly more spiritually in tune than most, I feel. Is the exploration of a potential bigger picture in the story, is that what appealed to him about this?

MP: He was interested in the kind of ambiguity and subjectivity of it all, and really was on board with us talking about the Id and the Ego, two John Kleins, being outside of himself. You could get super-abstract with him!  He was very smart. I would love to work with Richard again now, just being more experienced.  I really like him and thought he was really good in the film.

AB: What can you tell me about Alan Bates? He makes the most interesting choices in the film, he’s such a joy to watch even in just two scenes.  You know?

MP: Alan Bates is one of those legends. At the time we were talking about casting people like Ian McKellen, or Max Von Sydow. I remember Alan Bates kind of hadn’t been seen in a while, I remember I was like “Let’s get someone who’s kind of in exile, so when he shows up it’ll be kinda cool!”  You get to meet him a couple of days before, when you talk he’s like “I think this guy is damaged, destroyed but driven. John sees something of himself in him.”

AB: Yeah, it’s the same road that John’s heading on.

MP: He’s got pages and pages of “Joe the explainer” stuff (in the script).  He’s gotta explain the whole movie and where the third act’s going. Which is not easy to do!

AB: True, but the way Bates does it, you’re not waiting around for him to get through his pages of stuff.

MP: No, he makes it so fascinating and paranoid and interesting.  I remember after Alan’s first take, Gere getting up from the table like “Wow.” I was just sitting there like ‘what do I go up and tell him?’ “You wanna do another one, Alan?” (laughs)  But he wanted to be directed! And I was like “That was awesome, maybe you could say a little of this or that,” but he was really on point. A great gentleman.

AB: I was wondering if you had specific rules or a bible regarding the entities, as the storyteller, did you have things worked out that you never intended to tell the audience? Or was it always coming from a more nebulous point of view?  I wasn’t sure if you had answers to yourself just to keep you grounded as a storyteller, that you never intended on giving the viewer.

MP: You mean like “what was the real answer” even if I never told you the answer?

AB: Yeah! Just wondering how much of that was determined in backstory by the writers.

MP: We’d have to get specific, but the non-human form that created these disturbances, sometimes they were electronic, sometimes they were aural, sometimes they were visual, sometimes somebody recounts a story, like the fire chief, there’s a precognition, or a prediction of something that can happen in the future. All it is, is an idea, but it unnerves you, right?  So you have a phone call, a precognition, an anecdote, a strange sound, a reflection of self in the mirror that’s slightly off sync; a scare, a hallucination, a description of the hallucination, a nightmare, disruptions of time and space, and logic…

The whole movie is just all that stuff floating through, right?  Which is really what the book was, a chronicle of all this stuff that tied together more of the winged creature elements. The literalness, but we could do things like the camera swooping on the kids in the back of the car. We used light and sound and noise. Every scene really became just entrenched and drenched in that uncomfortable “something is going on” feeling. Literally from the time, it’s in the first frame of the movie!

Even when he goes through the newsroom and you feel the electronic energy, and you feel he’s being watched with his wife in the house, it’s dark; the whole thing is just like. In answer to your question, you write the script – a succession of events experienced by the guy and its accumulation. The predictions and prophecies are building that in order for the hero to believe that they’re actually going to happen. And the chemical plant’s going to blow up. And that’s the misdirect… that wasn’t the tragedy, it wasn’t the plant, it was the bridge. That was the basic story. And trying to do it with as much weirdness as possible.  And that’s what appealed to me about the script and what we tried to rewrite was “Don’t ever answer anything! Answers are death.”

AB: (laughs) Fair enough!  I’m gonna ask you about one odd thing; right after that scene where Gere’s reflection isn’t matching up with him, he knocks the door with the mirror on it and we see SOMETHING, this thing in the mirror just for a moment…

MP: Yeah, that’s the great mystery!

AB: It looks like a grey to me. That traditional alien form, which completely freaked me out.

MP: Yeah, it’s somebody! It’s some makeup or wardrobe assistant who was standing there off-set, not more than a few frames.

AB: It’s enough to register SOMETHING and that’s enough to make you jump.

MP: Six frames, they say, is what the human eye needs to register something. The reason it’s more disturbing – there are three reasons. One, is we’ve just given the audiences the scare in the bed, right?

AB: Of Mary suddenly appearing?

MP: Yeah, that’s a jolt. And then the violence of John – I think he slams the mirror after he hurts himself, right after the scare. The physicality – you’re already unnerved, and then with the sudden violence of that moment; I remember the audience, when they felt they saw something else, they completely went bonkers. Which is the greatest feeling ever.  Thank god for that wardrobe assistant was in the ‘wrong place’.

AB: But you intended for him/her to be there, right?

MP: Absolutely.

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